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"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
Transcript of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South.
Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in questionable behaviors, ambivalent gender roles and decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, crime and violence. While the tales in literature can be set among various classes, the decay of the southern aristocracy and the setting of the plantation are the usual settings for Southern Gothic tales in the popular mind.
Well known SoGo authors include:
- William Faulkner
- Truman Capote
- Harper Lee
- Cormac McCarthy
- Tennessee Williams
- Ron Rash
Let's discuss the themes present in "AGMHF" - what is O'Connor suggesting about the following:
Good and Evil
Prejudice and Tolerance
God and Religion
Violence and Cruelty
Society and Class
The Power and Dangers of Manipulation
Moment of Grace
Writers often talk about epiphanies—what O'Connor, in her Catholic tradition, called "grace"—in short stories. The idea of conversion is based on a comforting idea - that if only we had sufficient information, we wouldn't act badly. This concept is best illustrated by the The Misfit saying “she would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." He's not saying that a near-death experience would have turned her into a good woman. He's saying it would take somebody threatening to shoot her every minute of her life.
In other words, these conversion experiences don't stick—or they don't stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.
There's a great line in Orson Welles' film Citizen Kane, where one of the protagonist's enemies says to him: "You're going to need more than one lesson, Mr. Kane, and you're going to get more than one lesson."
O'Connor really believes that people can flood, momentarily, with the kind of grace that epiphany is supposed to represent. But she also believes that all humans essentially sinners. She's saying: Don't think for a moment that because you've had a brief instant of illumination, and you suddenly see yourself with clarity, that you're not going to transgress two days down the road.
- Jim Shephard, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/what-flannery-oconnor-got-right-epiphanies-arent-permanent/266841/
The dirt road
When the family turns off the highway (symbolizing the right path of life) onto the dirt road that was supposed to lead to the old plantation house, it symbolizes that the family has fallen onto the sinful path. The dirt road is described as being “hilly” and having sudden washes and curves. Similarly, the sinful path, although tempting and desirable, is more dangerous and hard to travel than one assumes.
However, by the end of the story, readers realize that the straight, easy road of life that the characters were on before they turned onto the dirt road was not the right path either. Spiritually, the family (especially the Grandmother, who professed to be a “good lady”) was heading the wrong way. Their views of Christianity, goodness, and grace were all mixed up. It is ironic that the Grandmother's encounter with the Misfit on the "sinful path" is what it took to lead her to God's grace.
This symbolizes how the characters are spiritually stuck in a ditch. They cannot move forward in their faith, nor can they move back.
In the scene with the Misfit, the family members (except for the Grandmother) are taken to the woods and shot one-by-one. The woods, symbolizing death, reek of fear and the unknown. It is behind the Grandmother the entire time, just as death is always behind us. It can either consume us, as it did the rest of the family, or we can die in the light of God, as did the Grandmother.
Specific Religious Symbols:
John Wesley’s name is an ironic reference to the English priest who was one of the founders of the Methodist church.
"His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.'
Parallels that story where Jesus (the Misfit) was tempted by the Devil (the grandmother... notice the snake reference), and managed to resist.
Shooting her three times is a reference to the Holy Trinity
Skies weather are always symbolic to O’Connor, and she often uses such descriptions to reveal a character’s state of mind.
In another story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor ends the story with a man being “chased” by an ominous thundercloud, because the man is feeling guilty for abandoning his mentally and physically challenged wife at a roadside diner.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the sky at the end of the story is cloudless and clear, indicating that the Grandmother has died with a clear vision of her place in the world.
The Old House
Has a two-fold potential meaning - could represent the past but also temptation
Represents the woman’s habit of wanting to live in the past
The house is not where she thought it was—it was in Tennessee, not Georgia— a realization that symbolizes that one’s perception of the past is often distorted.
This symbolizes temptation. If you view the highway that the family is driving on as the “true path” of life, then when the Grandmother tells the children about the old plantation house with the secret treasure, she is really tempting them. The house is a temptation to her as well.
Pitty Sing (the cat)
Represents Bailey's frustration and potential hatred for his mother
"Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree"
Very much like The Misfit --> no allegiance, self-sufficient, self-serving, resilient
"Take her off and thow her where you shown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg."
Irony is one of the most difficult elements to identify in a story because it is related to tone and the author’s attitude toward the work. Irony is a literary device that is used to impart that things are not what they seem; the simple meanings of the story’s words betray an idea that is actually contrary to what has been stated.“Ironic” is not the same as “sarcastic” or “coincidental.” Irony can occur in situations in which things happen which are unexpected given the circumstances; an example of this is that a family embarks on a summer vacation and winds up murdered. Or irony can occur through dialogue when a character’s words have a meaning other than that intended by the person who utters them. Finally, there is “dramatic irony,” in which the reader understands something that the characters do not.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” O’Connor uses several kinds of irony to communicate her message about the human condition. At the beginning of the story, the Grandmother says “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” However, this is exactly what she does when she sidetracks the family to a desolate roadside. Verbal irony occurs after the car accident when June Star announces, “But nobody’s killed.” The story’s dramatic irony centers around the family’s interaction with the Misfit, when readers understand the gravity of the situation yet the characters do not; Bailey states “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is.” However, the readers do understand what "this is."
The Misfit's introduction
In the first paragraph of the story, O’Connor introduces the Misfit, the murderer who eventually kills the family.
The Grandmother's clothing
As the family prepares to embark on their vacation, the Grandmother plans her outfit with an eye toward tragedy. Dressed in a polka-dot dress trimmed with organdy and decorated by a spray of violets,“anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”
The six gravestones
"They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island." Bailey's family has six members: Bailey, his wife, his mother, and his three children. In the end, they are sort of stranded, trapped, and surrounded on all sides by the Misfit and his men, just like an island is surrounded by water.
Play on the word "tomb"
"Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth" prepared to swallow the family whole as Hiram and Bobby Lee kill them
The Misfit's car
As the Misfit and his gang approach, their car is described as “a big battered hearse-like automobile,” a further indication that death will figure into the story.
"The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again."
Digging a hole in the ground, covering it back up again... Yep, sounds like a burial. More death foreshadowing
Carl Jung first applied the term archetype to literature. He recognized that there were universal patterns in all stories and mythologies regardless of culture or historical period and hypothesized that part of the human mind contained a collective unconscious shared by all members of the human species, a sort of universal, primal memory. Joseph Campbell took Jung’s ideas and applied them to world mythologies. In A Hero with a Thousand Faces, among other works, he refined the concept of hero and the hero’s journey— George Lucas used Campbell’s writings to formulate the Star Wars saga. Recognizing archetypal patterns in literature brings patterns we all unconsciously respond to in similar ways to a conscious level.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
As a group, take a moment to discuss:
What does it mean to be a good person?
Bailey is the son of the principal character in the story, the Grandmother, and is the father of June Star and John Wesley.
He drives the car as the family embarks on their vacation. Bailey’s major importance in the story is his relationship to other people, especially his mother.
He allows her to boss him around and to convince him to go out of the way to visit an old house she remembers from her childhood, where the family is killed.
Bailey seems unresponsive to his wife and children, allowing them to take advantage of him.
Overall, Bailey, who wears a yellow shirt with blue parrots, perhaps symbolizing his cowardice, is a “flat” character.
Her religious epiphany at the story’s end provides the philosophical commentary behind the narrative
Lack of name/crotchety conversation --> creates a tragically comic caricature
Selfish and pushy; her demands put the family in harm's way
The Grandmother is critical of the children’s mother, who is never named, and she dotes on her son Bailey although she treats him like a child.
She demonstrates racist behavior by calling a poor Black child “a pickaninny . . . Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” and she reveals a superior moral attitude
The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and ... a very wealthy man.
In her conversation with the murderer, an escaped convict called the Misfit, the Grandmother says that she knows he is from “good people,” as she tries to flatter him in order to save her own life --> she is petty and selfish even in her final moments
Described as wearing tan and white shoes, no socks, no shirt, he is an older man with glasses “that gave him a scholarly look.”
By his speech, readers can tell that he is rather uneducated. However, he speaks to the grandmother and the others with deliberate politeness.
In the Misfit’s conversation with the Grandmother about Jesus throwing “everything off balance,” O’Connor presents a view of a world out of balance. Just as the story’s violence does not seem to match its comedy, the Misfit’s life of punishment has not fit his crimes.
He kills her when she calls him one of her “own babies" -- he is NOT one of her biological children, this is a symbolic statement
The Misfit, by helping the Grandmother understand her own mortality and connection with “all God’s children,” may actually be an unlikely—and evil— messenger from God.
"The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was."
The Misfit is given qualities that make him seem easily equated with God and Jesus.
June Star and John Wesley
June Star, the granddaughter, is rude, self-centered, and annoying. She argues with her brother John Wesley and seems disappointed when no one is killed in their car accident. When Red Sammy’s wife asks her if she would like to live with them, June Star replies, “No I certainly wouldn’t. . . . I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” She, like many of O’Connor’s characters, serves as comic relief or as an example of realism.
John Wesley, the eight-year-old grandson is described as a “stocky child with glasses.” He is portrayed as a kid with normal interests and actions. His enthusiasm to see the house his grandmother tells them about, mainly to explore the secret panel she says it contains, influences his father Bailey to make the fateful detour.
Red Sammy Butts
Owns the barbecue restaurant called the Tower at which the family stops on their car trip. O’Connor describes him as fat with his stomach hanging over his khaki pants “like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.”
Signs along the highway advertise his barbecue: “Try Red Sammy’s Famous Barbecue. None like Famous Red Sammy’s! Red Sam! The Fat Boy with the Happy Laugh. A Veteran! Red Sammy’s Your Man!”
He orders his wife around and engages in empty chatter with the Grandmother. Red Sammy’s statement, “A good man is hard to find,” in reference to the proliferation of crime and a nostalgia for the days when people did not have to lock their doors, becomes the title of the story.
The story is structured to fall into two sections, each with a distinctive tone. The first half of the story, up until the car accident, is humorous and light. After the accident, however, readers understand that a tragedy will occur. The tone turns dark, the subject matter becomes serious, and dialogue becomes more weighted with irony and symbolism. The conversation about religion between the Grandmother and the Misfit is deeply philosophical and in stark contrast to the story’s prior petty exchanges about old boyfriends or poor children. The story moves from being a portrait of an unremarkable family to being a dialogue one the themes of death, forgiveness and injustice.
The tone of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” combines humor, detachment, irony, and seriousness. Throughout O’Connor’s stories, readers confront humorous descriptions or situations, such as in this story when the narrator describes the children’s mother as having “a face as broad and innocent as a cabbage . . . tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.” O’Connor approaches the characters in her story with detachment; in other words, her narrative voice does not help readers to become sympathetic to her characters. She presents them with all their faults and oddities so that readers may judge them honestly. Towards the end of the story, the tone turns more serious and tragic as the Misfit happens upon the family. O’Connor presents a situation in which average people confront a force of pure evil. The dark tone is established when the characters are unable to reason with the evil Misfit and must confront their own mortality.
Final words, final thoughts:
The Grandmother's last words to the Misfit, as she reaches out to touch his shoulder, “You’re one of my own children,” signify that she has experienced a final moment of grace. The Misfit shoots her three times, but her transcendence to grace is underscored by the fact that she died “with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” Through her portrait of the Grandmother, O’Connor demonstrates her strong belief in the salvation of religion. Everyone’s soul deserves to be saved, she is saying, no matter how impious their actions in life.
O'Connor purposely includes an abundance of religious imagery and symbolism. However, her main character (the Grandmother) is a terrible example of the Christian religion. Let's take a moment to address the Grandmother's weak faith
- she denies Jesus
- tells The Misfit to pray but never does=
- "Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing." --> it seems that the grandmother is displaying spite for Jesus, God, and maybe the Misfit, as well. She's 'taking the name in vain', so-to-speak, putting her further into the category of the damned.
- no remorse, no apology, no responsibility
- will say anything to save her own neck
- no faith in the face of Death
The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O’Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother’s attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that African Americans in "the country don’t have things like we do,” she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in 1955 held.
The Era of the Automobile
The 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of cars on American roads, a result of post World War II economic prosperity. In 1955 motorcar sales passed the 7 million mark in the United States, Chevrolet introduced the V-8 engine, and President Eisenhower submitted a 10-year, $101 billion proposal to build a national highway system to Congress. Family vacations by car, like that in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” became common as Americans took to the highways and embraced the freedom and independence that automobiles provided. Although New York’s Long Island Expressway opened in 1955, it was unable to handle the volume of traffic passing over it. As American society became more mobile and independent, the culture changed. Drive-in restaurants and movie theaters proliferated in the 1950s, as did roadside motels and suburban shopping malls. Cars are important to O’Connor’s fiction as both an element of realism in her work and as a symbol for a shift in the way Americans think about themselves and their sense of place
Initial reactions to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” were positive. Caroline Gordon wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the story was “characterized by precision, density and an almost alarming circumscription.” Louis D. Rubin, Jr., in an essay entitled “Two Ladies of the South” recognized that O’Connor “is in essence a religious writer. Knowledge of good and evil is at the heart of her stories.” In an essay published in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor wrote that the Grandmother had been interpreted as being a witch and the Misfit a fallen prophet. She says that “there are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.” More recently, Russell Kirk wrote in an essay for The World that the Misfit is “the most forlorn and terrifying desperado in all Flannery’s tales.”
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
O'Connor loved to write strange, "freakish" characters. She did not shy away from the darkness of humanity but rather featured it prominently in her writing. Like most of her stories, "AGMHF" features disturbing, frustrating, dynamic characters.
Types of Archetypal Journeys
1. The quest for identity
2. The epic journey to find the promised land/to create the good city
3. The quest for vengeance
4. The warrior’s journey to save his people
5. The search for love (to rescue the princess/damsel in distress)
6. The journey in search of knowledge
7. The tragic quest: penance or self-denial
8. The fool’s errand
9. The quest to rid the land of danger
10. The grail quest (the quest for human perfection)
What is the Hero's Journey: Pat Soloman
What are your thoughts about the journey in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"?
Now as a group, I'd like you to discuss the possible symbolism of:
- The names in this story
- The Grandmother's hat
- The six tombstones, "like a small island"
- The Grandmother's death
- The Misfit's car
- The physical settings
- The weather
In her works, O'Connor is saying that we have become so accustomed to the lack of God in our lives that a writer must use violent means to make a point. Just as we are made to feel comfortable, enjoying O'Connor's carnival show, the comedy is miraculously transcended, and we realize that the situation has a philosophical meaning. All the freaks and clowns have taken on God's meaning. God is here but so is the devil.